Story: Joe DiPaula
Multimedia: Alex Glaze
Several times a week, dozens of young soccer players from around the globe gather to hone not only their soccer skills, but also their minds.
These kids–refugees and immigrants–are members of Soccer Without Borders. They spend time each day working on and off the field to learn ways to communicate despite language barriers, work in a group, and develop their own unique skills.
Soccer provides the bond that glues all together, no matter which country they originally called home.
“The goal is for them to successfully integrate into their communities,” said Academic Director Gina Gabelia. “To become independent functioning successful individuals. We would like for them to go on and have careers where they can support themselves and their families. And also pass on our values to the next generation.”
There are three rules for each member to follow: be respectful, try everything and speak English. The program hopes to create students that represent the “American Dream.”
They want the kids who leave the program to have a good sense of who they are as people as well as develop their soccer skills.
“We approach each child from a holistic perspective,” Gabelia says. “We’re not just a soccer team, we’re not just an after school program. We work with the whole family. When I say that I physically only see them a certain amount of times a week, if it’s a high needs child, or if there’s a special situation, I will make sure that there is someone who is there when I’m not there to make sure that everything is being taken care of and all the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted.”
The program goes beyond the normal call of duty by doing home visits with their program’s children because, in their eyes, you can’t help a child without helping the family. It allows mentors to act as advocates for the families. A mentor’s job might consist of doing things such as translating at meetings between school administrators and parents or using their relationship with the parents as a means of leverage so to speak when trying to get students more dedicated to their schoolwork.
Half of each meeting is spent on “soccer school,” which consists of the students doing any type of homework that they might have. If the students have no homework, Gabelia has plenty of “fun exercises” that she can give the students if their homework isn’t enough for them. These exercises range from research based crossword puzzles to readings.
After the academic portion of the day, students have soccer practice where they practice for upcoming games or tournaments. Most students play for their high school’s soccer team during the school year, but the program formulates teams such as Under-14 (years old) and Under-16 (years old) in order to serve both high school and middle school students that compete year round.
The program itself draws participants from all over the city and is constantly growing.
“We’ve had as many as 50 kids show up,” Gabiela says, “But we have a core group of 20 who show up consistently. They all have played on our U-14 team and stayed with the program.”
Once someone begins the program, they get hooked and do everything they can to stay with the program and share it with their friends.
“Word of mouth in this community is huge,” Gabiela says. “We started with just kids in this neighborhood but as things change and people move but they keep showing up, they bring their friends or people see us going to an event and they say, ‘Hey we want to come, too.’”
The events are designed to give the students a sense of what goes on outside of their neighborhood and around Baltimore.
“About three or four times a season we try to go to a professional soccer game or a Loyola (University Maryland) game,” Gabiela says, “And then we aim for a community service project at least once a season.”
In an effort to help produce people who are not only good soccer players, but well-rounded members of society, the program takes time each month to try and show its participants what the world has to offer.
“I try at least once a month to bring in something different, something new,” Gabiela says. “I have to keep it consistent and regular but I also want to introduce different elements of life, different elements of this country, different elements of this community because sometimes it’s hard for them to get a context of what exists outside of this neighborhood.”
Gabiela does things such as bring in guest speakers to educate the kids on topics like self-defense and the kids a few simple moves.
The program is constantly growing and hopes to soon be one that can give youth in Baltimore a sense of what this country has to offer and educate them on how to get the most out of life.
“Now that we are much further along and have had some time to grow, and look around at what other cities and programs are doing I hope to see Soccer Without Borders be one of the major out of school service providers to new American youth,” says Program Director Jill Pardidni.
“We hope these kids as they go through our programming, training, and soccer sessions that they stay healthy, build their skills, and achieve success on the soccer field as well.”